Eric Ellis was born and raised in Wilkesboro in a musical family. He has become one of the premier bluegrass banjo players in western North Carolina. His grandfather played music with Dock Walsh, a Wilkes County recording artist in the 1920s, and his father maintained that interest in music and played guitar. Musicians on his mother’s side of the family include his second cousin, David Johnson, a Wilkes County master musician and recording artist. “David has been a big influence on me, making me want to keep playing music,” says Eric.
He reports other influences also. His father took him to see bluegrass bands including the Stanley Brothers at the local courthouse and the Osborne Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs at the local VFW. “I remember watching the Arthur Smith Show on television out of Charlotte and other syndicated shows on Saturday afternoons,” he says. Seeing Don Rich picking guitar on the Buck Owens show made another lasting impression. “But,” he reports, “there was also picking around the house.”
Eric received a Silvertone guitar at age five, and by the time he was twelve, he started taking music more seriously and bought a Fender Telecaster electric guitar. “But, in the back of my mind, I wanted to play banjo,” he admits. At age fifteen, he started playing banjo. David Johnson’s dad made the instrument for him, and David showed him a few bluegrass rolls. “From there it was just me and the radio and record player,” says Eric.
Eric started performing at fiddler’s conventions at age sixteen with Harvey Batey and Steve Kilby. He later played with fiddler Tiny Pruitt. Eric also continued to play music with David Johnson who told him, “If you’re going to play much, you’re going to have to go out of town.” He took that advice and began traveling to play music with a larger circle of musicians, including Clarence Greene in Lenoir and Carl Spann in Hickory. He also played with Roy McMillan’s band.
Eric continues to play bluegrass with a various groups. He picks with Lloyd Church and the Dixie Pals with Drake Walsh and David Johnson. “I’m playing as much as I can,” he says. He plays some fingerstyle guitar, and he plays his Fender Telecaster around the house. He has been teaching for 23 years and gives banjo lessons to eight or nine students at his house. “It’s helped me improve my own playing,” he says. Together with ex-Clinch Mountain Boy, John Shuffler, he has helped numerous musicians record albums including Jim Shumate and Marshall Stevenson.
Eric is available for performances with a full bluegrass band or as a solo banjo player. He gives lessons in bluegrass banjo styles, and he is available for demonstrations or workshops.